Three Days in Memphis.
I arrive at my hotel, Comfort Inn Memphis Downtown. It’s just a few blocks from the famous Beale Street, with a partial view of the Mississippi River one block away. There’s also a distant view of the famous Peabody Hotel over some nondescript rooftops.
I go straight to Beale Street and have a late lunch of BBQ spare ribs and fries.
Then on to the B.B. King Blues Bar to catch the 5 pm gig with a blues-rock trio in decidedly denimed attire.
Singer, Memphis Jones, is joined by a bass player and a drummer. The first song they play is Memphis, Tennessee. They know what they’re doing – getting all the tourists hooked immediately. They’re pretty good. Nothing revolutionary, but it’s nice to hear live music, and it’s an excellent introduction to a city that’s so known for its musical history. The concert is free, so I make sure to tip the band 10 dollars before leaving. So not entirely free after all.
After the late afternoon gig, I walk down to the Mississippi River, at the end of Beale Street, to catch the sunset. There are many people down here, and it’s clearly a place to hang out. Lovers are strolling past. Families sit in the grass. A bunch of guys play basketball. Youngsters on electric scooters whizz past. Further south, the Big River Crossing reaches across the Mississippi over to Tennessee’s neighbour state, Arkansas. In fact, you’re already in Arkansas halfway across the river when crossing the bridge.
I walk north along the river from the Beale Street Landing in direction of my hotel, where another bridge, Hernando de Soto Bridge, lights up the Memphis evening with LED lights in bright colours and exhilarating patterns.
Dinner consists of pizza at Aldo’s on Main Street. A friendly waitress suggests ordering a ‘small pie’, as a ‘big pie’ can, according to her, feed a small village. I order pepperoni, peppers, jalapeños, onions, tomato and no cheese. And ginger ale. As promised, even the ‘small’ pie is not small at all, and I can’t finish it even though it’s delicious. I take the rest of the pizza back to the hotel and eat the rest later, knowing I’ll wake up about a kilo heavier tomorrow.
On my first morning in Memphis, I visit the Cotton Museum, a short walk from the hotel. To see the exhibition, you have to walk through the beautiful original Cotton Exchange hall and into a large room where the actual exhibit is. An introductory video doesn’t delve as deeply into the slavery aspect of cotton production as perhaps is warranted. However, the collection of cotton-related products is compelling and shows how intertwined cotton production was with the history of the Blues. There are many old relics and photographs to look at and an entertaining, educational section aimed at children. It hits home that I never considered that golf balls and dollar bills contain cotton.
Down by the riverside, one block from the Cotton Museum, several electric scooters are scattered, waiting for someone to use them: Bird, Bolt, Lime. As I already downloaded the Lime app in Los Angeles last week, I ‘log in’ to a Lime and get moving. I follow the Mississippi River south in direction of New Orleans, Louisiana, from where I arrived yesterday. But I’m not going on a Lime all the way back to NOLA. Just a mile or so further Downtown to the Civil Rights Museum.
I ‘Lime it’ to the Beale Street Landing, where I ‘log out’ of my scooter and cross the road to walk up a steep flight of stairs, leading up to a row of, no doubt, costly houses with impeccable views over the river and beyond – West Memphis, Arkansas.
The walk continues through a considerably quieter part of town, just a few blocks south of busy Beale Street. There’s an outdoor art installation with a painted piano and a few restaurants, and a Blues museum. There’s a passing tram, or trolley, as they call them here. And then there’s what I came here for, The Civil Rights Museum. A jolt goes through my body when I first catch sight of the scene of one of the most famous images in recent history. The Lorraine Motel/Hotel, now part of the museum, stands as it were like a monument and reminder of that terrible, pointless murder of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. It happened right here. And I can feel it. The history of this location sizzles through the air. Only two other people are loitering outside the motel, and we quickly realise why there are not more of us. A sign with the opening times reads: Tuesday – closed. I wanted to visit the Civil Rights Museum, Mason Temple and Stax today, and Sun Studios and Graceland tomorrow. I decide to walk to Mason Temple and Stax as planned, but I can see on Google Maps that it’s in an entirely different neighbourhood. Luckily, I spy another Lime lying nearby, so off I whizz again.
A person has set up a small tent near the museum with placards surrounding it. The placards protest poverty and homelessness in Memphis. It seems like the person opposes the Civil Rights Museum and how the Lorraine Motel stands empty as a part of the museum’s exhibition rather than being used to house homeless people. It’s an interesting point. But I imagine that’s a touchy issue, especially since the person calls their ‘campaign’ the James Earl Ray Memorial (Earl Ray being the man who was arrested for killing Dr King).
I cruise my way through the backstreets of Memphis into an increasingly desolate area of town. After swerving one too many holes in the road, I decide to leave the Lime before falling and cracking my head open. I’m not in a hurry to try out the American healthcare system and see if the insurance really would cover a serious injury. I walk alongside the main road and see that this is maybe not the best place to walk around alone as I stride past needles and broken bottles of beer and a group of homeless men who stare me down as I walk by.
This is not the sightseeing part of town. Highlights around here include a KFC, a Taco Bell, a petrol station, and numerous cars passing by on the road. Soon I find the Mason Temple. It’s closed, and I take a picture of the church itself and a sign mentioning Dr King. As I’m about to leave, a man shouts to me from his car: ‘Just ring the doorbell, ma’am, they’ll let you in.’ They are used to tourists like me. I thank him and go back to the door and ring the bell. A guard immediately buzzes me in. I ask if I can look inside the church. He confirms that I can and asks me to sign the visitor’s book.
Inside the big room, holding about 2000 worshippers, I’m alone, except for a man hoovering the floor. The noise aside, it’s very peaceful in here, and it’s nice to feel like I have the place (almost) to myself. I stroll through the room, trying to connect myself to another time when Dr King was standing up there on the podium delivering his legendary ‘Mountaintop’ speech.
I sit down in front of the pulpit in one of the chairs in the first row and take it all in. Pretending I’m at a service but the sermon is that of a roaring hoover, sucking the congregation into a loud vacuum and pulling us out of ourselves – which I suppose is what a good sermon is supposed to do. After fifteen minutes, I walk out in the lobby and say thank you and goodbye to the friendly guard. The man in the car is still there when I get back outside, and he smiles and gives me a thumbs-up as I emerge from the church. I smile back and shout, ‘Thank you.’
The Stax Museum is another 20-25 minutes’ walk away. I walk down a road with boarded-up houses on one side of the street and shotgun-shacks with small porches on the other side. A basketball stand lies across the street, a can of Coke caught in the hoop. Grass grows out of control on every lawn I see. In fact, there’s not one lawn, as much as one long stretch of wild-growing grass alongside the narrow, dusty road. Strewn around garbage compete with wildflowers about covering most ground. I swear I’ve walked into an eerie scene in the True Detective TV series. Who knows what might happen on an isolated backroad such as this. The sun beats down on me, and I realise I’m out of water. Five minutes later, I’m relieved to be back on the busier main road, Mississippi Boulevard. There are several boarded-up houses here, too – poverty is a horrific reality for so many. In fact, ‘nationally, Memphis has the second-highest poverty rate among cities with a population over 500,000, Detroit having the highest‘. It’s telling that still after all those years, the two big cities with the highest poverty rate in America also are the two cities that can equally claim to be the home of soul music (Stax in Memphis, Motown in Detroit).
I pass by a sidestreet called Ida Place, and when I look around, I see the street sign of a sidestreet on the other side of Mississippi Boulevard called Edith Avenue. Quite the coincidence considering my name is Ida, and my grandmother’s name was Edith. I turn left on E McLemore Avenue. (Several months later, I find out if I’d walked to the right down E McLemore Avenue, I would have found soul legend Aretha Franklin’s birth home down a sidestreet just a few minutes walk away. Damn!). A few minutes later, I stand in front of the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Luckily they’re not closed like the Civil Rights Museum, so I head inside to buy a ticket to heal my soul – and a bottle of water to quench my thirst.
We’re ten people or so entering the exhibition. First, we watch a video about the history of Stax. It shows how audiences in Europe were less segregated than American audiences when the Stax artists toured there. One of the musicians interviewed in the video points out that he didn’t sleep for the twenty days they were in Europe because he didn’t know if he’d ever get to go back to Europe and wanted to soak up every moment. Steve Cropper – famous for being the guitarist in Stax Records house band, Booker T. & the M.G.’s and later in the Blues Brothers band – is clearly a point of pride in Memphis because he’s being interviewed on video about his connection to Memphis in pretty much every exhibition I go to while I’m here, which becomes a bit comical after a while.
As we leave the theatre area to go into the actual exhibition area, a man comes up to me and says: ‘Excuse me, ma’am, I think you lost this.’ He’s holding up my battered phone. It must have fallen out of my pocket while watching the film. I thank him and feel thankful. Of all the people who might have picked up my phone, some might have stolen it, but he was one of the honest ones. Thank you, sir, whoever and wherever you are. My phone screen is broken from when it cracked when I dropped it on the ground by some ruins in Vietnam just a couple of weeks ago. Now I’m in another part of the world – indeed, a former enemy territory of Vietnam – but the cracked phone reminds me every day of another timezone of the world (GMT+7). Now, I’m in timezone GMT-6. Such is the magic of travelling. Today, I’m not about to see the ruins of an old temple in a jungle in Vietnam, but the leftovers of an old recording studio in a city in the United States of America.
The museum itself is excellent – so many artefacts. So much to see and learn. I can’t keep track of it all, but that’s part of the appeal. It’s a blast from the past, a sensory overload, an explosion of information. Highlights for me include; the recreation of a small southern baptist church with a gospel soundtrack playing. Isaac Hayes’ BLING Cadillac. A rebuilt Studio One, where Otis Redding recorded Dock of the Bay. Hundreds of 7-inch records hang like shiny, identical looking black artworks except for the various coloured centre labels that reveal which song you would hear if you put the record on and reveals each record’s makers’ identities. Fantastic exhibition. Great museum. I buy a Stax t-shirt in the gift shop, and then I order an Uber because I can’t bear to walk in the heat anymore.
Next stop, Sun Studio. The Uber driver says it’s good that I ordered an Uber as this is not a safe area to walk in. I reply I have already walked from the Civil Rights Museum to the Stax Museum. He shakes his head at the stupid tourist sitting in the backseat of his car (that would be me).
The outside of Sun Studio looks like I’ve seen in pictures, and the excitement about being here is undeniable. Inside is a souvenir shop (of course) and cafe area. I buy a ticket from the wide-smiled girl behind the counter and sit down to get my first ever Cream Soda (too sweet for me) at the bar in the small entrance area while waiting for the next guided tour in about ten minutes.
Then the tour begins, and our very energetic guide takes us upstairs. She tells us how in the 1950s, record producer and founder of Sun studio Sam Phillips loved blues music so much that he wanted to start a label to promote this music as no one else seemed to be doing so. It was at Sun Studio that the idea of distorting the guitar sound was invented. Some musicians recording at the studio dropped one of their amps on the way to the studio, and it broke inside, creating a hissing noise when they played. To fix the problem, Phillips put some paper inside the amp, and this though solving the hissing, made a distorted sound that sounded so great that they decided to keep it. This was pretty much the birth of the sound and idea of rock and roll. Phillips’ favourite discovery was Howlin’ Wolf, and he didn’t like Elvis Presley the first time he heard him (too poppy). It was very much thanks to Phillips’ secretary that Elvis eventually got to record (That’s Alright Mama) at Sun Studio and thus became Phillips’ most famous discovery. Presley didn’t stay with Phillips for long, though, as he was soon lured away by more lucrative offers than Phillips could afford to give the new rock and roll star.
After the upstairs tour, we go downstairs to the studio area where artists still record today. It’s where Elvis recorded, and Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins – all in the famous picture where the four of them turned up at the studio the same day and fooled around. Sam Phillips secretly recorded the session but knew he couldn’t share the recording with anyone for contractual reasons. The so-called ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ recordings were only revealed after Phillips’ death. Our guide tells us that most recordings at Sun were done in one or two takes. But when Jerry Lee Lewis recorded Great Balls of Fire, he was so drunk that he needed over 30 takes before he got it right. The blue drum kit in the studio belonged to U2 and is the one Larry Mullen Jr plays in U2’s tour documentary, Rattle and Hum. Our guide also demonstrates how Johnny Cash would play his guitar and get a unique sound by putting a dollar note between the strings. It’s a great tour, and I leave feeling full of input from a day rich in cultural exploration.
After the Sun Studio tour, I walk back to Beale Street. I catch the end of a set of two blues musicians, a black singer and a white lead guitarist, playing for a small crowd of people in an outdoor bar. The next band, four musicians who play country-rock, are not as exciting, so I continue my walk past the many bars on Beale Street. One plays Tom Petty’s Free Falling that merges with the sound of a blues band playing on the other side of the street, making for a sonic Americana-blend.
Many of the bars’ signs brag of being ‘World Famous’, which sets the tone of the street. Every place here tries to sell the dream of a past that no longer exists to tourists like me. I go into A. Schwab’s (the oldest store on Beale Street). These days it’s a combined cafe and souvenir shop selling all things Elvis, including t-shirts, chewing gum, mints, pens, wallets and whatever item you can print the name Elvis upon. I have a milkshake and two boxes of Elvis-mints, which leads to the question: Did Elvis have fresh breath? I have a BBQ meal at another ‘World Famous’ joint; waffles, fried chicken, sweet potato fries and lots of hot sauce and maple syrup.
Today is a big day; Civil Rights Museum and Graceland. Two opposites. I would have loved to have taken a one-day trip to Tupelo, Mississippi, to see Elvis’ childhood home, but it’s not possible in the time I’m here to get to and from Tupelo in one day without renting a car. I also realise that it’s in Memphis (just south of Graceland, in fact) that Al Green – another soul legend – is a Reverend and holds services most Sundays. I wish I’d known that when I booked this trip so I could have planned around it. But you can’t do and see everything, and I accept that I’ll miss out on seeing Al Green.
I ‘Lime it’ to the riverside park and walk up the stairs to the fancy houses with the great view and continue to the museum. This time it’s open. The exhibition is brilliant. Like at Stax, there’s so much information it’s too much to take in, so I concentrate on fragments. We walk through the history of Africans in America, and it’s a grim history (as we all know), but it’s also one of hope, beauty, and resilience.
The exhibition comprises an onslaught of information and photos, videos, audio, and simulated experiences. For example, you can ‘join’ legendary cilvil rights activist Rosa Parks in 1955 on the bus in Montgomery, Alabama, as she is told by the white bus driver to move to the back because she is black. You can ‘experience’ – or imagine – segregation by standing in a mock-up of a cafe with a group of black people sitting apart from two white men. There’s a section about the legendary marches to Selma in 1965 to demonstrate for black people’s right to vote. There’s a section about the history and work of the Black Panther Party, and much more.
Perhaps the most moving part of the museum is towards the end of the exhibitions, in a section on Martin Luther King where a sign reads: ‘Dr King spent the last hours of his life in Room 306, directly behind you…’ That’s when I realise that the exhibition has now taken me inside Room 307 of the Lorraine Motel, and when turning around, I look straight into Room 306. There’s a glass wall between the two rooms so visitors can look into the final room Dr King slept in, which looks like it did on that fateful day in 1968, complete with a suitcase, a plate of breakfast, a cup of coffee and a newspaper. What a poignant way to end this part of the exhibition.
But it’s not over yet. The exhibition continues on the other side of the road, where visitors go inside the old boardinghouse from where Dr King was murdered. This is equally chilling and emotional. This part of the exhibition is primarily about the murder of Martin Luther King, his assassin James Earl Ray, and questioning whether it actually was Earl Ray (or only him) who was behind the murder. Then I walk downstairs through a gift shop and back outside.
On the way down to the Rock and Soul Museum to catch the free shuttle to Graceland, I walk past a building that says ‘Gibson Factory’. It’s closed and under construction. I didn’t know that Memphis was home to the Gibson guitar, but I’m not surprised – everything else about Memphis screams MUSIC! (UPDATE: I later find out that Gibson is moving their factory to Nashville).
The shuttle arrives and we are about 15 other people who board. There are a lot of holes in the road on the way to Graceland, and the vehicle actually shakes, rattles and rolls all the way to our destination. About 20 minutes later – slightly rattled from all the shaking and rolling on the bus – we arrive at Graceland in the southern suburbs of Memphis. We walk through a car park before we get to the gates that lead into a new’ish part of Graceland. This part comprises several buildings exhibiting different aspects of Elvis’ influence and possessions; his car collection, his costumes, and a section about stars he inspired, which include objects like a piano once owned by John Lennon and a suit worn by Justin Timberlake. It’s easy to notice that mainly white people appear to have been inspired by the ‘King of Rock and Roll’.
There’s also a Glady’s Diner, where one dish on the menu is Elvis’ favourite sandwich, a peanut-banana sandwich made with bacon grease, just like his mama (Gladys) made it. There’s Vernon’s Smokehouse (named after Elvis’ father), where one of the items on the menu is meatloaf like Elvis liked it. I have no idea how much these two dishes differ from how Elvis had them, but I make a point to try both. They’re both a bit dry and very, very filling. We are ushered into a room to watch a short introductory film. Then it’s back outside to wait in a long line, slowly snaking its way forward in U-turns to get on one of the shuttles that arrive every few minutes to take visitors across the road and up to the actual Graceland building where Elvis lived.
Before entering the house, we’re told not to film anything, that we’re not allowed upstairs, and we must keep moving so we don’t hold up the people behind us. A quick run-through of the house is as follows: To the right, a living room next to Elvis’ father’s bedroom. Stairs leading up to the off-limits area. There’s a closed door at the top of the stairs, and it’s hard not to wonder if this might be a door to the bathroom where Elvis died. There’s a dining room to the left and through an open door the wood-panelled kitchen.
Then we walk downstairs to the basement. There’s a pool room and a striking yellow room with a small bar area and three televisions. The audio guide (narrated by actor John Stamos) tells us that Elvis had three televisions because he heard that Nixon always had three TVs to watch everything simultaneously. Good thing Elvis lived at a time when there weren’t hundreds of TV-channels to choose between – how would he have had room for all of those TV-sets?
Back upstairs, we walk past the Jungle Room, which appears to have been everyone’s favourite room. It’s undoubtedly festive, with a green shaggy wall-to-wall carpet and wooden furniture and Hawaiian-style ornaments. In one chair, there’s a giant teddy and a guitar.
There are several other areas of the grounds, like father Vernon’s office, a small shooting range, a ‘games room’, the stables, a swimming pool, and the Meditation Garden where Elvis, his mother, father, and grandmother are buried. Then back to wait for a shuttle to go back to the other side of the road to the other exhibitions. The car collection is fun but opulent. I don’t care much about the costumes, but it is fun to see the black leather suit Elvis wore at his ’68 come back television show. For five dollars extra, you can go inside Elvis’ planes. I haven’t paid an extra five dollars, but I can see the aircraft from outside the enclosure, where they’re parked for all to see from a distance.
While waiting for the shuttle to go back into town, I walk back across the road to stand in front of Graceland to take some pictures that I couldn’t take from the shuttle. I stop for a moment and look at all the messages and names scribbled on the stonewall. I look up the driveway leading up to the house and think of the times Elvis must have driven and walked that path. But it’s hard to connect. In contrast, I remember when I was in New York for the first time, went to the Dakota Building, and stood where John Lennon was murdered in 1980 – that I could connect with. I remember feeling upset and emotional. But here at Graceland, I’m not feeling it. Just because someone is an idol doesn’t necessarily make you a fan.
On my last evening in Memphis, I want to try Flight Restaurant and Wine Bar. It’s supposedly one of the best restaurants in town and serves a more high-end cuisine than the bbq joints around the corner on Beale Street. I enter the restaurant and ask for a table. The hostess says the words people who dine out alone will invariably hear be asked: ‘Just one?’ Just one! They have a table in the wine cellar, so downstairs we go. There are only two other occupied tables when I arrive, but the place is full when I leave about an hour later. The service is excellent, and I choose a menu where I mix and match three choices – they are all delicious. I order a glass of local white wine from Oregon. Well, Oregon is more ‘local’ than the European countries from which the other wines originate. I choose the lightest dessert, a creme brûlée, also excellent – what a sublime and also expensive meal. And a nice change from bbq and pizza.
I walk down to the riverfront one final time and enjoy the view of the mighty Mississippi River and the light show from Hernando de Soto Bridge. Then I return to my hotel a few blocks walk away.
I could easily have spent a whole week here; a trip to Tupelo, a Sunday Service with Reverend Al Green, visit the Rock and Soul Museum and the Blues Museum, go to see Aretha Franklin’s birthplace and so on. The last three days have been a lovely introduction to an exciting and soulful city. I have never been to Nashville, so I can’t compare Memphis to that other city legendary for its musical legacy in the state of Tennessee. But I find it hard to imagine that Nashville can have more to offer a visitor than Memphis has. Nashville has become ‘cool’ in the last couple of decades. Memphis doesn’t come across as cool. Quite frankly, it’s too hot to be cool. Thank God for that.